Week Three: Transgression

By nuff
October 3, 2023
4 min read

This week, we're reading Chapter 1 of *Unruly Speech* by Saskia Witteborn. Witteborn frames transgression as a way of defining the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Beyond that, she argues (through those she references) that it is necessary for maintaining social order.

“[To] transgress is to go beyond the bounds or limits set by a commandment or law or convention, it is to violate or even infringe. But to transgress is also more than this, it is to announce and even laudate the commandment, the law or the convention”

Here, Witteborn is quoting Chris Jenks’ 2003 book, Transgression. The idea is that transgression affirms the rule as much as opposes it.

How Does this Impact My Project?

I started thinking a lot about Tarnschriften (literal translation “camouflage writing”), **specifically the anti-Nazi writings that were illicitly published and hidden in plain sight disguised as chess pamphlets or make-up adverts. They were often quite small so as to be hidden inside of other books. I love the idea of a guide being passed around inside a sort of literary Trojan Horse, so I think that’s what I’ll try to do.

Ironically, the more I read about these beautiful pieces of morally upright literature (mostly written by the communist party), the more tempted I am to make a guide to installing a puppet regime.

Conversations with Margaret

I had a great conversation with Margaret, the Tisch librarian, about puppet research. On a technical level, she showed me how to do advanced search with multiple variables and constraints. This would be helpful for clamping down on the number of results coming back for something like “sock puppet”.

I was struggling to connect transgression and puppets and Margaret was able to introduce a few new concepts (Bread and Puppet Theatre), as well as jog my memory about some old ones (Spitting ImagePunch and Judy). It seems the UK has a particularly interesting history of political puppetry, with the word “poppet” (a term of endearment to me) previously referring to a kind of voodoo doll.

Possibly the key takeaway from our conversation was when we discussed what I thought to be a completely esoteric family history. My paternal grandfather had trained as a medicine man in his remote Nigerian village and came from a family of people responsible for the local masquerade. The pre-Christianity local deity of the village was someone my dad had once described as being the equivalent of Hades in the Greek pantheon. I assumed this was something that may not have happened elsewhere but Margaret was convinced there would be ethographic studies on similar practices across the country. Sure enough, we were able to identify the Yoruba masquerade as (almost definitely) Egungun and the deity as Eshu (it turned out I actually wrote this down somewhere a few years ago). Coincidentally, my classmate Eric whose theme is “Trickster” came across Eshu in one of the books he was looking through.

By the end of this conversation, I had two clear directions (literal puppeteering as a metaphor for political puppeteering) and the Yoruba masquerade. Now I just need to pick one and run with it.

Guide References

Jay Foreman on London’s Boroughs

  • Tone (wacky, nerdy, sarcastic)
  • Visuals
  • Pacing


This one fits my notion of a “guide” the least, but “combat training disguised as dance” is the vibe I’m going for.

David Drake’s Pottery

The Enslaved Artist Whose Pottery Was an Act of Resistance (Published 2021)

He made pots and wrote (”catination”) on them (or at least one) at a time when slaves were being forced to be illiterate. A “guide” to reading—literally—and maybe to liberation.


Tarnschriften: Covert Resistance in the Third Reich - The Wiener Holocaust Library

OK, all of my examples are about resisting oppression and I want to make a guide to installing a puppet government?

That said, I think this is my form. Risograph?

It seems they were often palm-sized and not too long (one example is cited at 22 pages) so they could be hidden in another book or easily pocketed. This one’s in the form of a pack of tomato seeds.

Here’s a French example.


  • I imagine this guide as being a sort of capoeira—a Trojan horse designed to escape the prying eyes of some evil overlord.
  • Are there other examples of covert guides, cultural objects or materials? Subliminal messagingGreen Book? That was openly a guide to staying safe on the road, and probably well known by Black folk but not outside.

OK, so how could I disguise a puppety thing?

  • Maybe a guide to social media marketing that’s actually about sock puppet accounts?
  • Or a guide to maintaining and using your puppet (I need to finish actual puppetry research)

Naming Exercise

  • Puppetmaster: A Guide to Controlling
  • Become a Puppetmaster!
  • Puppets: A Practical Guide
  • Social Media Marketing for Milennials (really stop people from touching it)

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